Grimes, otherwise known as, Claire Elise Boucher, was photographed in full fantasy costume on a street corner in Los Angeles while absorbed in the book. She has since taken to Instagram to explain that she is not a Communist, more that she got sick of paparazzi following her so used it as an opportunity to troll. Though she did add that “there are some very smart ideas in this book”, so it seems she has read at least some of it.
The Communist Manifesto was composed in late 1847 by German social activists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It analyses and dramatises the divide between rich and poor in industrialising economies and argues in favour of a classless, democratic society.
As a political theorist I have specialised in Marx, Engels and Marxism and have translated this work afresh, so I appreciate what Grimes was referring to as the “smart ideas in this book” – and can imagine how she might be inspired as a reader and artist.
Capitalism and globalisation
As Marx and Engels observe, capitalism “concentrates property in a few hands”. They point to “industrial millionaires” who sit atop the “world market” – those known since the Occupy Wall Street protests as “the 1%”. Musk lives in an otherworldly position of super-privilege. And as his former partner – and as an artist said to be worth $3 million – Grimes will likely have had a lot of personal experience of what was described in The Communist Manifesto.
Musk has used his multi-billions to fund SpaceX, his project to visit and eventually colonise Mars. And while space travel does not figure in the Manifesto, what Marx and Engels do write a lot about is global cities. Places such as New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris and London, that are the playgrounds of the super-rich – even during the pandemic by private jet.
“Every country”, Marx and Engels say, now has “a cosmopolitan character”, because products from everywhere are available everywhere -– but only for those who have the money. Maybe when Grimes looked so absorbed in the short book, she was actually recalling all the places she has been and sights she has seen, both with Musk and their child and while on tour, in the glamorous world of high-end luxury living.
Manifesto for artists?
As an artist, there are also crucial things in the Manifesto for Grimes to think about. Grimes previously revealed that she did not take any financial help from her former boyfriend. But now that she’s un-partnered, she will likely be in contact with her agent and her lawyer to discuss what is next. And Grimes may well find that she has plunged into what Marx and Engels describe as the “icy water of egotistical calculation” as she works out how to keep herself in profit.
Grimes may also discover – and not just from reading the Manifesto – that under capitalism her cultural production of tunes, lyrics and poetry is her simply acting “as a machine”. Marx and Engels show how capitalism resolves “personal worth into exchange value” – having “stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured”, artists included.
Maybe she might get a settlement from Musk and this will bankroll her songwriting. But if this did happen, others will be after her money – as Marx and Engels warn. And there will be a lot of them: “paid wage labourers” all after a buck. Even if Grimes is living for art and does not need the money, those around her won’t be in the same position.
Rejoining the 99%
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels use a clear “before” and “after” structure for their critique of capitalism – and offer us a vision of a different kind of society. So what then of the “after” that is Grimes’ future not she’s separated from Musk?
In the Manifesto she will find an optimistic vision. She does not have to be so completely alone (as photographed) because in separating from Musk (and despite her wealth) she’s technically rejoined the 99%.
Indeed, those who are hard done by in capitalism come “from all classes of the population”, just as Marx and Engels predicted. It isn’t only the poorest who get a bad deal -– just surviving the system is stressful enough, as many (maybe including Grimes) are now discovering.
Ultimately, though, the whole idea in the Manifesto is that there should be more to life than making money, hiding from paparazzi and worrying about parasites – Marx and Engels would have really enjoyed that movie about class struggles in South Korea.
Indeed, “freedom” under capitalism is only “free trade, free selling and buying”. Grimes is clearly giving that some thought, and considering what creativity really means. I look forward to her next (Communist-inspired?) album.
Terrell Carver is a Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.
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